The New Understanding of the Word, Part 1



A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2CO 3:6)

Today’s sermon is the third in a series of sermons dealing with the question, “What’s new about the New Church?” Past sermons have dealt with the distinctive New Church doctrines relating to the Lord, and the Life after death. Our subject for today will be the distinctive New Church doctrines concerning the nature of God’s Word, and we will see that the doctrines of the New Church give us a key which unlocks the mysteries of the Lord’s Word.

Perhaps one of the most basic assumptions we would make about a Christian is that he should revere and honour the Bible. It should be a fundamental part of every Christian’s belief that the Bible was written by God through the prophets in order to give mankind those truths which will lead us to happy, productive lives in this world, and to eternal happiness in the next. The difficulty is, that although we may believe that these things are so, it is far more difficult for us to actually find them in the Bible.

A husband and wife are having difficulties in their marriage. Where are the scriptures that will help them overcome their fears and begin to resolve their differences through good communication? Where are the scriptures that show teens the dangers of substance abuse? We could go on, but our purpose here is not to criticize the structure of scripture, but merely to point out the fact that the Bible does not appear to speak directly to many of the issues that are most critical to us in our daily lives.

Are we perhaps expecting too much from the Bible? But how can we expect too much if it is God’s Divine Word? But what about the apparent contradictions, where an Old Testament passage seems to say one thing, while a New Testament passage seems to say the opposite – which teaching should we follow?

It is dilemmas like these that have led some Christian denominations to exclude certain parts of the Word. Some denominations focus on the teachings of the Old Testament, while others focus almost entirely on the New, depending on their doctrinal point of view and their philosophical leanings.

It is a principle of the law, and many other professions, that a document must be internally consistent. That means that when you write something, the position or point of view you take should not be one thing in one place, and something else in another. When you see such apparent inconsistency in a legal document, your assumption should be that you don’t understand the point, and you should make the effort to go back and see how they can both be true illustrations of some larger issue point. If we are to assume Divine authorship for the Word, (and we do) we must then also assume that this same principle applies – that because the Word is the work of one author, it must be internally consistent. Since it does not appear to be consistent as to its letter, perhaps we need to look at it in a new way to discover where its consistency lies.

There are many things in the Word which are appearances of truth that yet contain within them genuine, spiritual truths, principles which can govern all aspects of our lives. It does no harm for us to think simply about the appearances, as long as we do not then try to twist scientific truth to make them true, for in so doing the truth is harmed, as are the principles contained within them.

Let us take an example from something very simple and familiar: the saying that the sun rises in the morning. Certainly, that is the appearance. When we look to the East early in the morning, we see the sun appear from below the horizon, and then begin to climb. We have no sensation of motion for ourselves, and the sun appears to be much smaller than the earth. Therefore, even though we all know intellectually that what we are actually experiencing is the earth turning while it orbits the much larger sun, still, we say that the sun rises and sets. Everybody knows what we are talking about, and everybody knows that it is not strictly true, but it is an appearance that we accept and use. Such a convention of speech causes no harm.

However, there were those who believed that the truth of the Word lay in its letter, that made it a matter of religious faith that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the sun, moon and stars revolved around it. Then, after the invention of the telescope, when scientific evidence began to contradict that view, the church burned the scientists to death for their heresy! For the moment, science seems to have won that battle, but does it mean we have to throw out any scriptures that refer to the sun rising or setting? No, it means we have to look beyond the letter to the meaning within the words, if we are to find the real life and spirit of the Bible. For, as Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians, the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (text) (See TCR 257).

It is clear from a study of the nature of scripture, that the only people who were intended to take it literally were the ancient Hebrews and their descendants up until the time of Christ. If the Word is to be of some use to Christians, then, it must be by some other means. The doctrine of the New Church teaches that God, in His Divine Wisdom, wrote the Word in just such a way that every letter and word would have a literal meaning of value to the Jewish Church, but at the same time contain within them a spiritual meaning that could be unlocked, and that would provide moral and spiritual meaning to all those who were to follow after the Jews. This spiritual sense is defined by the doctrines of the New Church in the following words: The spiritual sense is not the sense that shines forth from the sense of the letter of the Word when one is studying it and so construing it as to confirm some dogma of the church. That may be called the literal and ecclesiastical sense of the Word. The spiritual sense is not apparent in the sense of the letter; it is interiorly within it as the soul is in the body, as the thought of the understanding is in the eyes, or the love’s affection in the face. It is that sense chiefly that makes the Word spiritual, not only for men but for angels also; and therefore by means of that sense the Word has communication with the heavens. (TCR 194)

Even when we accept the concept that the Word was written in the way it was in order to contain an internal sense, yet we wonder why it could not have been written in a plainer style, why do there have to be the difficult sayings and apparent contradictions? It seems that the same internal sense could have been carried in a literal sense that was far more specific and clear. We are told that the reason for the Word being written in such a difficult style is because the Lord saw the need to conceal the rational statement of His Divine truths until such time that mankind had advanced enough that they were ready to receive them, as He said in John, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now (16:12).

The Lord has hidden spiritual truths in the letter of the Word, but He has hidden them in plain sight, like a puzzle where certain figures are hidden, but as soon as the teacher shows you one, they all pop out so clearly that you wonder how it was possible that you didn’t see them right from the first. Once we accept the idea that the whole of the Word is a parable that can be understood using a clearly defined set of keys we find that the Word is full of teachings pertinent to our daily life, each level deeper than the next.

The Old Testament was written the way it was because, as to its letter, it was suited to the spiritual level of the children of Israel, and today the stories of the Old Testament are most interesting and appropriate for Elementary school children. The New Testament was written in a different way, because it was designed to speak, in its literal sense, to a group of people who had a sophisticated understanding of the Old Testament. We find that children in High School appreciate its moral stance and level of thought. But it takes an adult mind to reach within to the spiritual levels, and that is why the doctrine of correspondences which discloses the internal sense of the Word could not be revealed until after the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment – until certain ideas had been planted and come to fruit in the collective understanding of mankind.

When that time had come, the Lord made use of a new prophet, Emanuel Swedenborg. We may observe that people today are a little uncomfortable with the idea of a prophet in modern times, and yet when we look at the way the Bible was constructed, and the testimony of scripture itself, we see that there have been literally thousands of people during the course of recorded history who have been called by the Lord to be prophets, to have their spiritual senses opened so that they could hear the word of the Lord through an angelic messenger, and then carry it by written or spoken word to others.

We should note that the word “angel” is the Greek word for “messenger,” one who carries the Word of God to men. We should not automatically discard the possibility of a modern prophet just because he was a modern, educated man. The principles of prophecy still apply, and in fact, the scientific and rational nature of the revelation required that the prophet be a modern, educated man so that he could understand the ideas presented to him and then represent them to mankind in a meaningful and clear way. Emanuel Swedenborg was a man whose accomplishments in many fields of science, politics, and economics made him uniquely suited to the task of explaining the doctrines of the New Christian Church.

His Theological Writings demonstrate that the “spiritual sense” can be systematically, even scientifically, drawn out of scripture, by the use of a system called the “science of correspondences.” Briefly stated, this doctrine shows that everything in the natural world exists because it corresponds to something in the spiritual world. For example, we say that all the animals in the Word correspond to different affections. Think of the various places in scripture where animals play a part in the story, and if we know that good animals represent our good and charitable feelings, while dangerous beasts represent our evil desires, we can begin to see a reason for the parts that the various animals play in the different stories of the Word – why the Lord so often associated Himself with sheep, for example, because sheep represent our willingness to be led by the Lord, an affection He wanted to foster in us.

The theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg contain many volumes of information about what various passages in scripture mean, using this scientific system which can be applied with equal facility to any text from Genesis to Revelation and throughout.

This system shows that every word and verse actually carries within it truths that pertain to the history of the church, our own states of spiritual growth and rebirth, the doctrine of the spiritual world, and the nature of God Himself. The science of correspondences unifies the whole of scripture so that it makes sense and has relevance to our lives and our situations here, now, today. This new system shows that science and religion are not enemies, but rather two different ways that the Divine Wisdom shows itself. We turn to science for a description of how things work, and we turn to the Word to find out why. The Doctrines of the New Church combine solid Christian traditions with our own experience of life, reason, common sense, science and psychology to create a religion that makes sense.

The Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, some 30 volumes, written over a period of 25 years, form a comprehensive system free of inconsistencies and contradictions which opens scripture up in a new way, allowing the Divine truths that have always been there, to shine forth and to bring new light into the lives of men on earth, provided that they seek to put them to use in their lives.

The one question that each of us will face in our lives, when trying to answer our own questions about religious belief and faith is, “how do I know that this teaching is true?” All of us will ask that question no matter what faith we were born into. In the final analysis, we each decide for ourselves what is true by living according to it, and asking ourselves if it leads to what is good, to what we, from conscience, believe that God wants us to do. We in the New Church believe that the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg constitute a new revelation because that is what they themselves claim, and when we live according to the truths they reveal, we are lead to do good to our neighbour, and to love the Lord with a greater degree of understanding than has been possible before.

We read from the True Christian Religion, the things in the literal sense of the Word are apparent to every man because they present themselves directly to the eye; but the things that lie hidden in the spiritual sense are apparent only to those who love truths because they are truths, and do goods because they are goods. To them the treasure that the literal sense covers and guards lies open (244).

The Word has been written in the way it was so that its very form and structure would protect it from those whose intention is evil, and who would seek to use it to gain power over other. Such people, because they seek evil, cannot see the wonderful truths in the Word. But, for those who turn to the Word for comfort, and guidance in ways to improve their life, the Lord opens their eyes, and enlightens them, so that for them the Word overflows with His love. Amen.

First Lesson:

(GEN 15:1-6) After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” {2} But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” {3} Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” {4} And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” {5} Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” {6} And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness. Amen.

Second Lesson:

(John 16:5-15) “But now I go away to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’ {6} “But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. {7} “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. {8} “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: {9} “of sin, because they do not believe in Me; {10} “of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; {11} “of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. {12} “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. {13} “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. {14} “He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. {15} “All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you. Amen.

Third Lesson: Word 18:1-3

18. From the spiritual sense it is that the Word is Divinely inspired, and is holy in every word. It is said in the church that the Word is holy, and this because Jehovah God spoke it; but as its holiness is not apparent from the letter alone, he who on this account once doubts its holiness, afterwards confirms his doubt when reading the Word by many things in it, for he then thinks, Can this be holy; can this be Divine? Therefore lest such a thought should flow in with many, and should afterwards prevail, and thereby the conjunction of the Lord with the church, in which is the Word, should perish, it has now pleased the Lord to reveal the spiritual sense, in order that it may be known where in the Word this holiness lies hid.

[2] This again may be illustrated by examples. The Word treats sometimes of Egypt, sometimes of Asshur, sometimes of Edom, of Moab, of the sons of Ammon, of Tyre and Sidon, of Gog; and one who does not know that these names signify things of heaven and the church may be led into the error that the Word treats much of nations and peoples, and but little of heaven and the church; thus much of earthly, and little of heavenly things. But when he knows what is signified by them, or by their names, he can come out of error into truth.

[3] And so when he sees in the Word such frequent mention of gardens, groves, and forests, and also of the trees in them, as the olive, vine, cedar, poplar, oak; and also such frequent mention of the lamb, sheep, goat, calf, ox; and likewise of mountains, hills, valleys, and the fountains, rivers, and waters in them, and many like things, one who knows nothing about the spiritual sense of the Word must believe that these things only are meant. For he is not aware that a garden, grove, and forest, mean wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge; that an olive, vine, cedar, poplar, and oak, mean the celestial, spiritual, rational, natural, and sensuous good and truth of the church; that a lamb, sheep, goat, calf, and ox mean innocence, charity, and natural affection; that mountains, hills, and valleys, mean higher, lower, and lowest things of the church; that Egypt signifies memory-knowledge, Asshur reason, Edom the natural, Moab the adulteration of good, the sons of Ammon the adulteration of truth, Tyre and Sidon the knowledges of truth and good, and Gog external worship without internal. But when a man knows these things he is able to consider that the Word treats solely of heavenly things, and that these earthly things are merely the subjects in which the heavenly things are. Amen.


Copyright © 1982 – 2006 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modifiedSeptember 27, 2009

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